11/02/1998 at 01:00 AM EST
Not long after Richard Greene accepted the meager $5,400 salary to become pastor of the tiny Church of the Brethren in Frostburg, Md., 24 years ago, he began to have the dreams. Some, he says, were of famine, some of war and pestilence. Some were of God. In fact, Greene explains, the Lord had a mission for him. " 'Richard, as it was in Noah's day so it shall be again before the second coming of the son of God,' " Greene recalls hearing. " 'I want you to rebuild Noah's ark.' " He says he isn't sure why he was singled out, but he never doubted what he heard. "God has a very gentle voice, but it's like a boom," says Greene, 61. "You know it when you hear it." Still, he was wary of the task. "I was afraid to tell anybody," he says. "It sounded too far out."
On Easter Sunday in 1976, Greene and his flock (his original parishioners voted to support the project) broke ground on the crest of a hill overlooking Interstate 68 near the rural town of Frostburg (approx. pop. 8,000) for what might someday be a 135,000-square-foot, ark-shaped religious complex. "If I were building the ark, I would build it down by Disney World," says Greene of the remote location. "But I'm not building it, God is. I like to think about it as God's Love Boat."
Ultimately, Greene envisions a center that would house a chapel, a 2,000-seat auditorium, a Christian school, a Bible college, a counseling center, and radio and television facilities. Despite his enthusiasm, the going has been slow. He claims to have raised $750,000, and yet the stark site comprises nothing more than a skeleton of rust-colored beams standing three stories high, 76 concrete pilings and a 450-foot foundation wall.
Greene guesses that the finished project could cost as much as $10 million—which he doesn't have. In the meantime, he often asks contractors to work on faith. In July, Greene ordered $86,000 worth of material, even though there was only $25,000 in the steel-beam fund. "Will you believe God for the extra $50,000?" Greene asked local contractor Carl Belt. Belt said okay, but he's not relying on a higher power to foot the bill. "That might be a slight exaggeration there," says Belt. "I grant terms to most people, and Greene has paid for everything so far."
Greene, now the shepherd of a nondenominational flock called God's Ark of Safety (most of his original congregation eventually abandoned him), relies on donations and his own media-savvy ways to raise money. He evangelizes on local radio, makes the rounds on the national televangelism circuit and leads crusades to as far away as Ghana.
Growing up in Pontiac, Mich., one of eight children of Eugene, a farmer, and Hazel, a homemaker and nurse's aide, Greene was at first more interested in hunting and fishing than in serving the Lord. It wasn't until he met Lottie DeVault at a high school friend's house that he began attending church regularly. "My buddy said he knew Lottie from church, so I decided I'd better start going," says Greene.
After they married in 1955, Greene worked as an engineering assistant for General Motors for several years before choosing a life of the cloth, attending Detroit Bible College and becoming a pastor. Along the way, the couple also raised two daughters, Jennifer, 43, a mother of two married to a Pontiac minister, and Connie, 40, who lives in Frostburg with her husband, a lumber salesman, and two children, and who works part-time in her father's church. Lottie herself, now 61, presides over a growing collection of ark memorabilia and totally supports her husband. "When he first mentioned his dreams, she says, "I knew immediately this was what God had in mind for Richard." Still, she says of the struggle to build the ark, "there are times that I wish He had sent the vision to someone else."
Greene, who has had heart problems in recent years, admits he may not be around for the completion of his ark. "I once broke down and wept, wondering why it was taking so long," he says. Concerning the pace, he has since found peace. "He is in charge of how fast or slow it is built," Greene says of God. "If He wants it faster, then He will have to speak to more people."
Rochelle Jones in Frostburg